As the only human to survive vampire infection, Milagro de Los Santos has become quite a celebrity among the blood-drinking elite. Too bad the perks of her condition—increased strength, super-fast healing—don't pay her condo fees. There are other complications too. She's feeling guilty about her fling with enigmatic Vampire Council member Ian Ducharme, and pining for her ex-fiancÉ, Dr. Oswald Grant . . . the fabulous man whose kiss changed her life.
It's when Milagro—irked by Ian's attentions to his neighbor—travels to London and enjoys a sexy flirtation of her own, that the blood really hits the fan. Suddenly, those around her are dying gruesome deaths and Milagro's being interrogated. Who would kill to set her up as a murder suspect?
Milagro just wants to turn back the clock and have another chance to make things right, but no sooner has she escaped to Oswald's ranch than an accident obliterates her memory. Will the murderer come after her now? And will amnesia spark a romantic do-over with Oswald—or will she make all the same mistakes before she ever gets to say "I do"?
CHAPTER ONE - Love to Blood You, BabyIt was a marvelously sunny April day and I took a minute to admire the dignified bumblebees hovering like stripy zeppelins over the lavender hedge, and inhale the scent of freesia and narcissus before I packed my gardening gear into the back of my small green pickup. Since no one was around, I tossed a thirty-five-gallon bin of green recycling into the truck bed without my usual pretense of effort.
The garden had once been formal and restrained, with perfectly trimmed boxwood hedges; the sort of landscape my father, who had a landscaping company, installed. I'd transformed it into a place bursting with color and texture by adding interesting plant varieties and flowering shrubs.
As I swept the debris from the path, my brown dog, Rosemary, tap-danced by my side, and I told him, "We'll go in a minute. Thank you for your patience."
I leaned on the handle of my broom and looked up to see Gigi Barton, my client and friend, coming toward me. The heiress to the Barton tissue fortune ("It's not worth sneezing at if it isn't Barton's!") was dressed in a bold geometric print wrap dress over skinny pants and heels with a dozen tiny buckles. She worked the path like a runway and held out one arm to display a small silver package.
"Milagro, are you talking to that dog?"
"Yes, I am. The majority of pet owners talk to their pets. Did I tell you that I'm freelancing for Paws to Reflect, a newsletter for canine companions?" I had a degree in creative writing from a Fancy University (F.U.), but I hadn't been able to sell any of my fiction.
"You have the oddest ways of amusing yourself," Gigi said, "but the garden looks gorgeous. I love the urns."
The magnificent terra-cotta urns contained hundreds of deep purple and lemon yellow tulips, pansies, and freesias. "Thanks. I layered the bulbs, so you'll get a long succession of bloom."
"Wonderful!" She held the silver package toward me and said, "Would you give this to Lord Ian? I finally had the chance to have the mug shot framed from my arrest at our scavenger hunt last summer."
Gigi ran in the same circles as my boyfriend/lover/whatever, Ian Ducharme, who had one of those suspect European titles. Of course, I thought all titles were suspect unless they were on the covers of books.
I pulled off my grimy goatskin gloves and took the package. "I'm sure you look stunning."
She laughed. "I've learned a thing or two about getting a good mug shot over the years. The trick is to soften the lights with a scarf and have the photographer work with you. A girl like you shouldn't have any problem doing that. Just flash a little tit … or, in your case, a lot."
"Thanks for the tip, but I'm not planning on getting arrested anytime soon."
"That's what's fun about arrests, so spontaneous!" she said. "Oh, and tell Lord Ian that I'm taking his advice and looking into a summer house in Lviv."
"Oh, it's the new Warsaw, Milagro. Everyone knows that."
"I'll pass along the message. See you soon, Gigi."
"Ciao, sweetie," she said, and returned to her house.
I finished sweeping, put away the broom, and then my dog and I got in the truck. I started the engine, cranked up the music, and considered my options. I hadn't planned on driving to see Ian, but the heat of the day had made me amorous, and I knew he was returning from one of his mysterious trips.
I'd never been able to stay away from him even when I was engaged to Oswald Grant, a much more admirable man, a good man, a principled man.
I joined in the traffic speeding out of the City and across the bridge, enjoying the sight of the rich orange cables and spires contrasting against the glimmering silver-green water and the azure sky.
On days like this, it was easy to convince myself that all was well with the world. I was grateful that I could not only endure the sunlight but enjoy it. There were few benefits of being the only hybrid (vampire-normal/whatever) alive, and this was one of the most important.
Once over the bridge, I took a boulevard that led to low hills and then exited onto a street that wound through expensive neighborhoods, each more wooded and exclusive than the last. I hated showing up anywhere empty-handed, so I stopped at the posh market in town.
Everyone here had that trust-fund look of studied casualness as they parked luxury cars with bike racks, drank organic soy chai lattes, and jogged in gear designed by NASA scientists.
My mutt barked at a dog walker with a trio of pewter gray Weimaraners.
"I agree," I said. "But it's rude to say so aloud."
I left Rosemary in the truck and went inside the market, conscious of my dirty jeans, sweaty T-shirt, and work boots. You'd think I'd get over my discomfort in these places, but I always felt like the scholarship girl who didn't fit in anywhere.
The difference now was that I wanted others to see me as an ordinary chica, instead of what I'd become.
It was warm enough to grill tonight. I tried not to look obvious as I lingered by the butcher counter, before picking out two strip steaks dripping with glossy garnet juices. As the butcher wrapped the meat, I caught a reflection of myself in the mirror behind the counter.
Strands of long black hair had come loose from my ponytail and my damp T-shirt clung to my bounteous chi-chis. When I wiped at smudges of dirt by my eyes, I smeared my mascara.
I bought a bottle of pinot noir, radicchio, two baskets of blackberries, sourdough bread, and a Nylabone for Rosemary. While I was waiting for my turn at checkout, I picked up a copy of the latest Vogue and flipped through it.
I stopped at a page with an ethereally beautiful blonde modeling boots and little else. Her name was Ilena, and I'd met her when she was with Ian. She'd called me a "pretty chubby little pickle," and I was fairly sure she meant "pretty chubby," not "pretty and chubby." Either way, the insult still rankled. I shoved the magazine back in the rack.
Once in my truck, I gave the chew toy to my dog, who let it drop to the seat.
"Don't be like that. I'll share my steak with you later."
I drove on a series of twisting lanes up a wooded hill. Most of the houses were hidden from the street. At the apex of one turn, I made a sharp right into the driveway of a belligerently modern house. The real estate agent had called this ugly arrangement of turquoise and peach blocks a West Coast Tuscan, but I thought of it as a California Crapsman.
There were no other car here, meaning that my boyfriend/lover/whatever hadn't returned yet.
When I opened the car door, Rosemary leaped out and ran around to the back of the house. I grabbed the groceries and Gigi's gift and followed my dog to the backyard, a plateau of grass with a small oval pool and a fantastic view of the wooded hills beyond. It was private here and serene, so long as I kept my gaze averted from the house.
I left the packages in the shade of a patio umbrella and stripped off my clothes. When I dived into the pool, Rosemary jumped in, too. I swam a few laps, enjoying the weightless sensation, and then I got out and looked for a stick to throw for my dog.
I spotted one of Rosemary's tennis balls in the shrubbery border. When I bent to pick it up, I heard, "Ah, a glorious full moon in broad daylight."
I grabbed the ball, jumped, and turned.
My boyfriend/lover/whatever, Ian Ducharme, let out a sexy, rumbly laugh. He was wearing an ivory long-sleeved shirt and navy slacks. His deep brown eyes glinted in the shadow of the Panama hat that was tipped forward to shield his face from the sun.
He had dark curly hair, an aquiline nose, hooded eyes, and a Cheshire Cat grin. He wasn't tall and he wasn't markedly good-looking, but he had charisma, which came from the Greek kharisma, meaning "gift," and that charisma made me distrust my attraction to him.
I said, "Don't do that!"
"Do what? I was merely admiring the sumptuous vista." Ian and his crafty sister, Cornelia, had been hauled around their family's properties when they were young, and they spoke English with a Continental accent: some words had a clipped British pronunciation and others were rolled luxuriously.
"Don't sneak up on me like that. I'm going to sew tiny bells onto all your clothes so that I can hear you coming." I threw the tennis ball in the pool and Rosemary paddled after it.
"Aren't you going to welcome me back?" Ian took a step toward me, and I suddenly felt both shy and thrilled.
I walked in the other direction, putting the pool between us. "I don't want to muss your clothes. You dress so flawlessly that I'm abandoning all efforts to keep up with you. I'm going to stay naked from now on."
"A laudable policy."
Ian moved toward me, but I kept stepping away. Despite all the times we'd been together, he could still make me feel wary; and, yet, I trusted him implicitly, inexplicably. I trembled with anticipation.
I said, "I only came here to deliver a package from Gigi. It's on the table. It's a framed mug shot."
"How thoughtful. I'd like to have a photo of you now, my raven-haired Venus rising from the waters."
"I bet you would."
He feinted a move left and I took a step right.
"Hellooo!" came a woman's voice.
As I looked to see who was calling, Ian moved swiftly to me and grabbed my wrist. I yanked hard, trying to throw him off balance, but I was distracted by the woman who appeared around the side of the house.
She was a pretty honey blonde with hair below her shoulders and a golden tan. She had the look of the wealthy women here, from her neatly arched brows to her narrow nose to her perfectly polished toenails in chic sandals. She wore a gauzy sleeveless shift and her arms and long legs were toned. She seemed to be about thirty, but it was hard to tell.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said cheerfully.
"Not at all," Ian said with a smile as he let go of my wrist.
It's amazing how accurate those dreams of being naked are: you think that if you act normal, no one will notice. I held my hands demurely in front of my hoo-ha.
She said, "I saw your Jag here and thought I'd introduce myself. I live next door."
Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses and I couldn't read her expression as she took in my nakedness. I stood straight and pulled my shoulders back, although parts of me continued to point forward. "Do excuse me for being underdressed." And overfleshed.
"What's the good of having a pool if you can't skinny-dip?" she said, and turned her attention to Ian. "I'm Christine Poindexter, but everyone calls me Cricket."
"Delighted. This lovely young woman is Milagro de Los Santos and I'm Ian Ducharme."
Cricket tilted her head in a way that her first boyfriend probably told her was adorable. "Lord Ian Ducharme? You're a friend of Gigi Barton's, aren't you?" Her smile broadened, showing lots of straight white teeth.
I said, "Yes, Gigi's fab. I just came from her place," but Cricket wasn't asking me.
"Milagro redesigned Gigi's garden to reflect her vivid personality," Ian said, gazing fondly at me. "Milagro has a talent for bringing out one's essential character."
I liked that he never left me out of conversations even when he dragged me naked into them.
Cricket gave me another look. "Oh, is that your truck out front? I was wondering why it wasn't parked in the service lot down the street. I just lost my yard man."
"I'm a garden designer," I said, even though I was wild about double-digging and weeding. "I'd be happy to recommend someone to do maintenance."
"Would you? That would be great."
My dog dragged his soggy self out of the pool, dropped the tennis ball at my feet, and stared at me. One of the great things about dogs was that they didn't care what you wore, or didn't wear.
I said, "Very nice to meet you, Cricket. If you'll excuse me." I picked up the ball, aware of my boobies swaying with the movement, threw it in the pool, and my dog and I jumped back in the water.
While we splashed about, Cricket and Ian spoke for a few more minutes. I submerged so I wouldn't have to hear her giggle and flirt with him. Women were prone to giggle and flirt with Ian, and then they were prone to get prone with him.
When I came up for air, she was gone and Ian was standing at the edge of the pool.
"You stayed under for a very long time," he said.
"I've been practicing holding my breath in case anyone tries to drown me."
Ian was a member of the quasi-governmental Vampire Council, and my only ally in the secretive organization. Throughout my life, people had frequently wished I was dead, but only the Vampire Council and my mother Regina had ever taken the initiative to do anything about it.
"Why don't you learn self-defense, Milagro? I can recommend an excellent instructor."
"He'd probably tell me to shoot anyone who looks at me sideways. I'll manage on my own, thank you."
"And yet you thought you needed to attend university to read novels," Ian said. "I invited Cricket for drinks later."
"Cricket," I sneered. "Letting her see me naked was hilarious. Ha, ha, and ha."
"You could have jumped in the pool, or run into the house, or hidden behind me if you were so concerned."
"I have nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, Nancy told me that naked is the new black," I said, referring to my friend from F.U.
"I have long considered Nancy Carrington to be one of the great thinkers of our time. Come inside. I have something for you."
"Is it in your pants?"
He laughed and strolled toward the door at the back of the house.
I threw the tennis ball for Rosemary for a little longer, but curiosity won over and I got out of the pool.
Ian had placed thick Egyptian cotton towels on a chair. I dried off, wrapped a towel around me, and gave Rosemary a vigorous rub. His short fur was shiny and smooth, the color of semisweet chocolate, and he had a snowy white chest. We'd found each other on a city street and been together ever since.
I left my Rosemary lolling in the sun and went inside to the not-so-great room. The orangey brick floor and brick oven of the kitchen carried on the misguided Tuscan theme. On the other side of the room, a mirror ball hung over a varnished parquet dance floor. Oversized turquoise leather furniture had come with the house.
Ian was in the master bedroom, which had beige "texturized" walls, ridiculous white marble columns, and an ostentatious stone fireplace. I perched on the king-sized bed and watched Ian unpack his accessories from an overnight case.
"I am still baffled that you actually bought this house," I said. "It's beyond hideous."
"You like the disco ball."
"Well, that is fabulous. Who wouldn't want a disco ball in their house? No one worth knowing. However, one could easily buy a disco ball and install it in a less hideous house, or even in an attractive house."
"The location suited me. There's room enough for you to live here."
"I am happy, ensconced as I am in the City."
"My invitation is open." Ian took out a small brown cardboard box. "This is for you."
My mother Regina had ignored my birthday every year except my eighteenth, when she told me she had fulfilled her legal duties to me, and I was still excited by gifts. I opened the box and lifted a bit of crumpled tissue to see small plastic mirrored globes dangling on silver-tone chains.
"Disco ball earrings, how fabulous! Thank you." I put them on and looked up to catch my reflection in the ornate mirror on the ceiling.
"I saw them at a market stall and thought of you."
"A market stall in Marrakesh, Paris, Florence, New York, Shanghai?"
"Yes," he answered with a grin.
"I can never find presents for you. I can't give you anything that you can't buy for yourself, and better."
"Yes, you can, querida," Ian said, and in a moment he was on me, pressing me back against the bed, and I could smell his cologne, spice and leather and wood smoke. His warm mouth was on mine and all my wariness vanished because his touch was enough to bring out the instincts that I kept hidden from the rest of the world.
He was strong and I was strong.
Ian's well-tailored clothes hid a powerfully built body. I couldn't remember the moment when I'd begun to see him as beautiful, but now he was beautiful to me. I loved his broad chest and muscled legs, his jawline, his strong hands, the curve of his ass.
I impatiently pulled off his shirt and scraped my teeth over his shoulder as I fumbled with his belt buckle. He snatched away my towel and then reached for the gold penknife that he kept on the bed table.
Ian flicked the knife open and took my hand in his. My blood rose toward him, wanting release. Although I felt the blade slice into my palm, it never hurt when he cut me. Ian licked at the blood that spilled from the cut, and the prodding of his tongue sent delicious tremors into the gash and through me.
A few seconds later, my skin had healed and was smooth again.
I took the knife and pressed the tip against his chest, forcing the cut to stay open long enough for a crimson rivulet of blood to run down through the dark hair toward his firm belly, and then I was licking and sucking, intoxicated by the incredible taste, pleasure thrumming through me, every nerve alive to the slightest touch of his fingers, lips, body.
He painted a line on my skin with blood, his tongue and lips following it until pleasure grabbed me like a riptide, dragging me so deep that I thought I wouldn't surface again, and when I finally did, I had bitten deep into the flesh on Ian's leg.
And then things got fiercer. A chair was broken and sheets were flecked with scarlet. Feathers from a torn pillow floated in the air and stuck to our bodies.
We fell back on the floor, our sweaty limbs intertwined, and let our wounds heal and our heartbeats slow to normal.
Ian said, "We should be able to rid ourselves of all the furniture this way." He turned on his side toward me and leaned over to lick a last drop of blood from the hollow of my neck.
"You could just donate everything to the Goodwill."
"I wouldn't wish such ugliness on anyone."
I ran my hand over his thigh before I slipped my arm around his waist, pulling closer to him. I had a smooth pink scar on my inner arm from the time I'd been slashed and he'd transfused his blood into the wound to save me, and now it throbbed warm in response to his skin. I said,
"'Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.'"
Ian kissed my temple and said, "You were the one being coy, mistress."
Pleased that he'd recognized the Andrew Marvell verse, I said, "Have you used that poem to seduce virgins?"
"Generally a limerick will suffice." He grinned and stood, then offered me a hand up. "I'm happy to be with you again, Young Lady."
Young Lady was my nickname with his family and my ex-fiancÉ's family. Hearing it made me feel nostalgic for the Grants and for Oswald's wine-country ranch, which had been my home for almost two years. "I'm happy to be with you, too. What time is Cricket coming? Do you think she was named after the sport or the insect?"
"The latter, I should think. She has something of a voracious crop-devouring quality. She's bringing her husband."
"He'll probably drone endlessly about cars or technology or the stock market. Promise to prop me upright if I begin to list."
"Perhaps he'll be a handsome gigolo and you'll exchange erotic innuendos."
"Oh, Ian, why must you get my hopes up?"
"We've just time for a shower."
"That shower is the only good thing about this house. And the disco ball. And the view. And Rosemary likes the pool."
After we showered, I massaged multispectrum sunblock all over Ian's body, and was getting distracted again when he asked about my newsletter.
"The latest brouhaha is between the pit bull people and the Chihuahua people. They're waging a bitter nature-versus-nurture battle and submitting dozens of frothing-at-the-mouth letters and columns. Circulation has tripled."
"I'm very proud of you, but I hope you'll have time for your own writing."
"All I get are rejections from agents," I said with a sigh. "I can't tell myself anymore that the literary world isn't ready for my stories. It's me they don't want. They want a crafty little bastard like Don Pedro."
I'd ghostwritten a bestselling book, a fantastical memoir of a man who claimed to be a shape-shifter. I'd been paid a pittance and Don Pedro was internationally lauded as a spiritual leader.
"Is it the money or the fame you desire?"
"I want to be taken seriously for my craft."
Ian tweaked my nipple and said, "I take you seriously. Now, if you don't want Cricket to think you're predictable, you may want to wear clothes."
"Cricket. It's onomatopoeic, isn't it? Cricket, cricket, cricket."
"I'm looking forward to your veiled insults already, darling."
"I will be the epitome of charmishness," I said as I went to the walk-in closet where I kept a few of my things. I dressed in a tiered lavender silk flapper dress and silver metallic flats, brushed out my hair, and stroked on shadow, mascara, and lip gloss before going to the kitchen.
I sloshed together a pitcher of martinis and put out Fra' Mani salametto, Humboldt Fog cheese, pears, almonds, and a baguette. I hoped the sausage wouldn't give Cricket ideas.
I heard the doorbell ring, and a minute later Ian escorted his neighbor and a younger man into the not-so-great room.
Cricket had changed into a black-and-white polka-dot skirt and a little white lace-trimmed cotton blouse that rode up to show the diamond that glinted on a hoop through her navel. Very sexy soccer mom.
Her husband was young and gawky, his manner at odds with his well-shaded auburn hair and professional tan. His nose looked as if it had been broken at least once, and his hands and feet were too large for his skinny frame.
"Milagro, this is Ford Poindexter," Ian said. "Ford, my friend Milagro de Los Santos."
Ford reached out to shake my hand. His grip was firm and slightly damp, and I got a nice warm zizz from the contact. He grinned. "Milagro de Los Santos? Does that mean anything?"
"Miracle of the Saints," I said. "Ridiculous, I know."
He laughed a nice laugh. "People ask if I'm named after the car, or related to Henry."
"Or Ford Maddox Ford,"
"Close, well, not really," he said. "Ford Prefect."
"From Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy! Seriously?"
"Seriously. My father's a sci-fi freak."
Ian poured the martinis and handed one to Cricket, who said, "Really, Ford, you make him sound like a geek. He's a genius, a visionary."
"Does he write science fiction?" I asked.
"Good God, no," Cricket said with a laugh. "He works on research projects, whatever inspires him."
Ford said, "He's got multiple degrees in bioscience, physics, chemistry, and engineering, and the corporation that employs him lets him do whatever he wants."
"I'm impressed. I tried to go to grad school for a teaching credential, but got detoured to the landscaping department."
Cricket turned back to Ian. "Where is your family home, Lord Ian?"
"I'm a citizen of the world, Cricket," he said, which was his usual cagey vampire response.
I ignored the flirty way she was smiling at him, and I asked Ford, "Does your father work on any fun projects?"
"I'm not sure. He's very secretive about his work and my mom kicked him out of the house because he 'accidentally' ran over her cat. She's the only person he listens to, and she says he can't come back until he clones it and brings her a robot maid, too."
"Color me fascinated. Could your father clone a cat?"
"He said cloning is for schoolchildren," Ford said. "He took SeÑor Pickles's body and went to his lab eight months ago. We haven't seen him since."
"You haven't seen your father or the dead cat?"
"Either of them. It's not unusual. He works for this military contractor and it's all top secret," he said. "I can tell by your expression that you don't approve."
"I've had a few unpleasant experiences with groups more interested in profit and power than ethics," I said. "But if your dad's a sci-fi fan, I'm sure he's pro-humanity. Sci-fi is all about the individual's ability to overcome adversity, particularly fascistic forces."
Cricket rolled her eyes to indicate that she was officially over me at this point. Which was fine, since I was over her the moment we met.
She looked around the room. "This house looks exactly the way I imagined it. You know about the previous owner? He was a cocaine kingpin."
"He was a real estate developer," Ford said.
"He was supplying three counties," Cricket continued. "At the time, everyone thought it was cool to be friends with a drug distributor, and he was so generous with his merchandise that they let him build this eyesore."
"Cricket, some people may like this house," Ford said politely. "It's all subjective."
"We think it's gruesome, too," I said, sure that Cricket would attribute any tackiness to me. As I nodded my head, I felt the plastic mirror-ball earrings bobbing against my cheek. I tossed my hair just to feel them swing again.
"Will you be doing a remodel?" Cricket asked Ian. "I can recommend a wonderful design team."
"Milagro likes the disco room, so I think I'll keep it as is for now."
Cricket looked at him sympathetically. I wanted to smack the both of them, but Ford said, "It's an awesome party house."
His wife sighed. "That's why I make all the aesthetic decisions in the relationship." She spoke as if she was teasing, but I got the feeling that it was true.
Rosemary, always on the lookout for food, came into the kitchen, tail wagging. Ford bent over to scratch his back, setting off paroxysms of butt wiggling. "What's your dog's name?"
"His name is Rosemary."
"That's a girl's name," Cricket said slowly, as if I was an idiot.
"Rosemary is for remembrance," I answered. Ford gave me a quizzical look and I said, "I had a wonderful dog who died." Ian was watching me, so I didn't mention that the name also represented everything else I'd lost: my fiancÉ, my home at his ranch, my almost normalness.
We stood around the massive kitchen island and finished off the martinis. Cricket focused her attention on Ian and brought up all her travels and her recent vacation in Lviv. "We stayed at a ski chalet near the Carpathians," she said. "I do hope Lviv won't be discovered. The chalet next to us had just been rented by a stunning model, Ilena, who had us over for drinks."
I glanced at Ian, but he didn't change his expression at the mention of his ex-lover, who was also an expert in international economics, and made me feel insecure on a number of levels.
I turned back to Ford, who told me, "Come over some night and we'll have a film festival in the screening room. I've got original Hammer and Castle films and old projectors that go tick-tick-tick. I mean, if you like horror."
"I write horror stories," I said casually, hoping he wouldn't think I was too weird.
"Really? I've tried to write. I got two hundred pages of a time-travel story done, and then I got stuck. Do you write about monsters?"
"Mine are political allegories, more like the original Frankenstein, so, yes, I write about monsters."
"My father used to read Frankenstein to me at bedtime."
Cricket shook her head and said, "You really are making him sound like a kook."
She returned to her conversation with Ian. I went on to discuss scientific developments that science fiction had successfully predicted, and it seemed natural for the Poindexters to stay for dinner.
Ian pulled bottles of a spicy, smoky cabernet franc from the cellar, and we grilled vegetables and juicy filet mignons that were in the fridge. I put away the steaks I'd bought.
Ian and I shared a resistance to the effects of alcohol and other drugs, which was unusual even among vampires, and I felt a little envious of Ford, who got more and more sozzled and expansive as we finished our meal with glasses of cognac outside in the dark.
Cricket just got flirtier, but she was careful to touch and smile at her husband, too, keeping him off guard. It was close to midnight when she teasingly unbuttoned her blouse and said, "Since we're all friends here and I already saw Milagro …"
Ford watched goggle-eyed and adoring as Cricket did a strip-tease on the lawn, and Ian smiled at her bump-and-grind. She had a svelte body, and my ex-fiancÉ, whose career was perfecting breasts, would have admired the craftsmanship that had gone into her full, perky set.
Cricket dived into the pool and Ford quickly stripped to his boxers and jumped in. His wife floated on the surface and laughed. "Come in! The water's fine."
Ian said, "Another time," but I took it as a dare.
"Why not? We're all friends," I said, and pulled off my dress. Although Ford was besotted by his bride, he wasn't unimpressed when I undid the hook on my ivory lace bra. I let him get a good look before jumping in the water.
Ford did cannonballs, Cricket displayed a smooth side stroke, and I tried to see how long I could swim underwater.
After the night got chilly, we got out, wrapped ourselves in towels, and said shivery good nights. Cricket promised to have us over soon, gazing at Ian the whole time.
When they had gone, I said, "I'm surprised you didn't jump in the water. Cricket was totally sexing you up with her eyes."
"It would have made Ford nervous, and I liked him quite a bit. He's a charming young fellow, isn't he?"
"Yes, he's fabulous."
"He enjoyed your many charms, my dear."
I gave Ian a stern look. "I like him and he likes me. It's clear that he loves his wife."
"You, my dear girl, always interpret everything as sexual. I meant as a friend."
"Oh. It's so hard to tell with you and your too sophisticated Euro vampire values."
"You know that you're the only one for me, querida," he said as he stroked my cheek.
We never used the word "love" with each other. Our very avoidance of the word gave it power and substance.
I looked into Ian's dark eyes, searching for goodness, but all I saw was desire, and I wasn't sure who had inspired it. "I have to finish my newsletter."
© 2010 Marta Acosta
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